Sectarianism or The Truth Will Set You Free: “What’s Left?” May 2017, MRR #408


It’s a classic picture; an iconic, grainy, black-and-white photo of Fidel Castro addressing an unseen crowd, flanked by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Three handsome Latin men in the ultimate romantic revolutionary photo op. Within ten months of the Cuban revolution’s triumph in January, 1959, Cienfuegos died under somewhat mysterious circumstances amid rumors that Castro had him eliminated because he was too popular. And nearly nine years later, Che was hunted down and killed in the jungles of Bolivia under CIA direction, having been reluctant to return to Cuba after Castro made public Guevara’s secret “farewell letter” surrounded by rumors of a falling out between the two.

With Fidel’s death in November of last year, the top three leaders of the Cuban Revolution are now all dead. Fidel continued to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Cuban rum until a few months before his demise at 90 years of age. Supporters of the Cuban revolution considered this symbolic of the resiliency of the socialist project while its enemies of its doddering senility. But this isn’t yet another case of Schrödinger’s cats and quantum simultaneity. Marxism and the Left are definitely on the ropes. This month I’ll discuss the first of a handful of principal issues troubling the Left, without much hope of transcending any of them.

SECTARIANISM
OR THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

Sectarianism figures as the most overt and persistent problem on the Left. The term originally refers to religious conflicts where it was important to establish that you had a direct line to the almighty, and therefore a need to refute, persecute, or even kill anyone who disputed your claim. The idea here is that you and your group of fellow believers have the truth and those who disagree should be subject to everything from scorn and contempt to terror and death because they’re wrong. The claim to religious truth covers not just major differences like the nature of god (one indivisible vs three-in-one vs multiple, transcendent vs imminent) but also to minor matters like whether to make the sign of the cross with two vs three fingers or to baptize by dunking an individual’s head first vs feet first.

But religion certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on claims to the truth. Politics rivals religion in the acrimony it often generates, and ranks with money and sex as one of the top four topics that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company. Political sectarians certainly parallel their religious counterparts in emphasizing the absolute truth of their principles over all others, making every minor disagreement into the basis for fundamental differences, seeing the deadliest of enemies in their closest rivals, putting purity of dogma over tactical advantage, refusing to compromise or alter their aims, and proclaiming their pride at being against the stream. To be fair, real differences do exist between groups and within organizations. Anarchists and Marxists differ fundamentally on the nature and use of state power (dominant autonomous institution to be smashed vs instrumentality of class rule to be seized). Social democrats and Leninists disagree essentially on the organization and role of the political party (mass democratic party vs vanguard party). Given such fundamental differences, political conflicts and opposition are bound to occur when a common action or program is undertaken. But it’s important to define those differences that actually make a difference instead of always seeing fundamental differences where none exist.

On the Left, Marxism exacerbates the problem of sectarianism because of what Frederich Engels called the “theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific Socialism.” It is unclear whether Karl Marx himself had such a rigid understanding of his doctrine. While he concurred with Engels in differentiating his socialism from the utopianism of prior socialist thinkers, Marx was by no means as crude or mechanistic in its application to the world of his day. What’s more, Marx valued the correctness of his doctrine’s methodology far more than he did the correctness of its conclusions. Science is based on statements of fact like “1 + 1 = 2,” and so to claim that “1 + 1 = 3” for instance is not just wrong, it’s unscientific. If socialism is a scientific doctrine, then statements by Marxist organization A that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively anti-imperialist” are considered scientific fact. But what if Marxist organization B proclaims that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively counterrevolutionary?” Just as 1 + 1 cannot be simultaneously 2 and 3, Assad’s regime in Syria cannot be simultaneously objectively anti-imperialist and counterrevolutionary. Since both Marxist organizations A and B each claim to rely on scientific socialism to arrive at their contradictory conclusions, at least one of these statements must be objectively false.

Aside from the quantum physics fringe, science just doesn’t work that way. Neither political formulation may be right, but someone certainly must be wrong; a sentiment that fuels the sectarian urge.

For Engels, the term scientific essentially meant dialectic. There is much debate about whether Marx subscribed wholeheartedly to Hegelian dialectics, or if his methodology was more complex. Whatever the case, subsequent Marxists like Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao considered Marxism to be fundamentally dialectical. And Mao entertained an open notion of dialectics where contradictions endlessly self-generated until certain contradictions were considered eternal. “Does ‘one divide into two’ or ‘two fuse into one?’ This question is a subject of debate in China and now here. This debate is a struggle between two conceptions of the world. One believes in struggle, the other in unity. The two sides have drawn a clear line between them and their arguments are diametrically opposed. Thus, you can see why one divides into two.” (Free translation from the Red Flag, Peking, September 21, 1964) This is also a conception of the world as endless split and schism, of sectarianism run amok. Little wonder that the Maoist New Communist Movement in the United States at its height in the 1970s rivaled Trotskyism for ever-proliferating, constantly infighting groupuscules. It’s no coincidence that Monty Python’s film “Life of Brian,” with its clever skit of the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front, came out in 1979.

The “one divide into two” quote came from a pamphlet called “The Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives” which first appeared in 1970-71. It was called a “moldy soup of McLuhanism, anarchism, William Burroughs, Maoism, and ‘situationism’.” The real Situationists of “Contradiction” called out the fake “situationists” of “Anti-Mass” for taking “a firm, principled position within the spectacle, titillating jaded movement post-graduates with neo-Maoist homilies and Madison Avenue salesmanship.”

And so it went. Trotskyism, Maoism, and Situationism were perhaps the most sectarian tendencies on the Left, but Leftist sectarianism was by no means confined to them. With the defeat of the labor movement and the collapse of Leninist regimes in the twentieth century, we’ve come to a crisis of Marxism specifically and of the Left in general.

Increasingly marginalized revolutionaries sought to break with the senescent Left after 1991 and proffered innovations to its theory and politics in order to salvage what they could of Marxism. In the twenty-first century, this has amounted to rearguard discussions of insurrectionism, communization, Agamben, and social war. To quote Benjamin Noys, the “mixing-up of insurrectionist anarchism, the communist ultra-left, post-autonomists, anti-political currents, groups like the Invisible Committee, as well as more explicitly ‘communizing’ currents, such as Théorie Communiste” is what can be called today’s Social War tendency. In retreat and lacking agency, visions narrow. Revolution becomes insurrection. Communism becomes communizing. The amorphous eclecticism of the Social War tendency offers not “a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication” according to Donald Parkinson. In other words, more bad politics. And part of that bad politics is sectarianism. Witness the incessant political bickering between Tiqqun, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Communiste for starters, which no doubt sounds much more elegant in French.

Doris Lessing wrote in her introduction to “The Golden Notebook”: “I think it is possible that Marxism was the first attempt, for our time, outside the formal religions, at a world-mind, a world ethic. It went wrong, could not prevent itself from dividing and sub-dividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds. But it was an attempt.” Perhaps sectarianism on the Left is inevitable as Lessing suggests. It can be contained and controlled however, something that is necessary to promote solidarity.

As a postscript, it is claimed that opportunism is the opposite of sectarianism because opportunists readily adapt their principles to circumstances, minimize the significance of internal disputes, consider even enemies as “the lesser evil,” place tactical advantage over adherence to principles, willingly compromise, and gladly follow the mainstream. Whereas sectarians adamantly insist on their uniqueness, purity, and autonomy, opportunists willingly give up all three. Sectarianism insists on an uncompromising identity while opportunism readily dissolves itself into the greater movement. So while sectarians remain a constant pain-in-the-ass as long as they exist, opportunists happily sell out and fade away. Thus the problem of sectarianism persists while the problem of opportunism takes care of itself by simply evaporating.

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No apology necessary (or offered): “What’s Left?” December 2014, MRR #379

THE LEFT BEHIND LEFT

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Pogo (Walt Kelly), comic strip

We called it “The System” back in the day. After I got politics in 1968, I considered capitalism and the State equally destructive of human individuality and community, and that working people would be able to overthrow both to bring about socialism. My world view didn’t change much as I evolved from anarchism to left communism over the decades that followed. I identified the working class as the social class with the revolutionary agency to overthrow capitalism and the State and realize communism, a bit more nuanced than the political debates of the 60s where Marxists argued that capitalism was the principle enemy while anarchists argued that it was the State.

Things got a whole lot more complicated in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. The New Left splintered into the New Communist Movement, various nationalist movements, the women’s movement, the gay movement, et al, even as we pretended that a bunch of ineffective little groupings amounted to one big ineffectual Movement. Alternative analyses arose where patriarchy was the enemy and women the revolutionary agent, or white supremacy was the enemy and people of color the revolutionary agent, and so on. Eventually, it became necessary to define The System, after bell hooks, as the “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” enemy; a rather clunky accumulation of oppressions that did little to advance any kind of radical struggle other than to appease various and sundry wannabe revolutionaries.

I will take on the issue of revolutionary agency, as well as of the realistic capacities of any such agency, in a future column. For now, it should be clear that the implied parity between forms of oppression entailed by the phrase The “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” System is bullshit. Every group in radical circles singles out one form of oppression as primary, with all others consigned to secondary status. Radical people of color and their allies see white supremacy as THE enemy. Radical feminists and their allies contend that patriarchy is THE enemy. And so it goes. Such was the case when Marxists argued that capitalism was THE enemy, or when anarchists proclaimed that the State was THE enemy.

I’m happy to discuss and debate which form of oppression is paramount, even to argue whether all are equally valid, and learn from or adjust my analysis accordingly. Unfortunately, the quality of discussion and debate in this sad excuse for a Movement is abysmal. I’m not sure whether it is merely dogmatism and sectarianism run rampant, or the consequence of postmodernism’s effects on our capacity for critical thinking and dialogue, but reason and analysis seem to be in short supply whereas rational study and articulate argument have become lost arts. I won’t go into all the gory details of my latest run-in with internecine anarchist idiocy. You can google that for yourself. For the record, I’m utterly disdainful of the thoroughly isolated, completely fragmented, pathetic joke of a so-called Movement. Nowadays, I no longer claim anything left of the Left, although my sympathies remain gauchist. Instead, lets discuss two general topics of interest.

THE MYTH OF FACT CHECKING

Memory is a motherfucker.

Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist

This is one of my favorite quotes. Ayers makes the point that many of the memories he claims are fact or true are actually not that at all, but are based on recollections fogged by time, as well as a “blurring of details” where “[m]ost names and places have been changed, many identities altered, and the fingerprints wiped away.” There is plenty of scientific evidence for the unreliability of personal memory and eyewitness testimony. This plus my experience with writing and reading history, where there are invariably numerous versions of the same historical narrative, has made me cynical of words like “fact” and “truth.” I won’t go so far as Nietzsche’s famous quote that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” but I will argue that there are no facts, only evidence for facts. The only way we can establish a fact, or for that matter a truth, is through verifiable, empirical evidence for that fact or truth.

Fact checking then is not a matter of tallying up the facts, but of compiling and weighing the evidence for the facts. In my experience, two things often stand in the way of honest fact checking when it comes to current events. First, there are plenty of people claiming that “they were there” at any given notorious incident, whether or not they actually were. And second, of those individuals who come forth and claim to be present when such incidents take place, most are decidedly less than forthcoming about the what, when, where and how of their supposed eyewitness experiences despite their willingness to loudly pass judgment on the why.

As for history, I wasn’t around for either the Russian revolution or the Spanish civil war. Yet I’ve scoured all the available history and primary sources, the evidence if you will, for the facts and lessons to be drawn from these historical events. In the process, I’ve noticed that new evidence is always being discovered, and thus new facts are being determined, and new histories are being written.

DUALISM VS DIALECTIC

When the Buddha comes, you will welcome him; when the devil comes, you will welcome him.

Shunryu Suzuki, “No Dualism,” Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.

Tom Waits, “Heartattack and Vine”

Finally, there is the tendency to reduce everything to a Manichean good vs evil view of the world, inherited from our Judeo-Christian society. Marx made it clear that capitalism is a system of exploitation and oppression, but also an all encompassing social relationship in which both capitalists and workers are intimately involved. Capitalist and worker are both oppressed by capitalism, although by no means equally so. Thus, Marx was against vulgar Marxists who label capitalists as purely evil and workers as entirely good. White supremacy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that white people are evil and people of color are good. Patriarchy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that men are evil and women are good.

Even the penchant for naming an enemy is problematic. To do so is to suggest an evil that must be countered by the good. I have been sitting zazen for the past three plus years, trying to wrap my mind around the Buddhist idea of non duality. Non duality seems the perfect antidote to good vs evil thinking, except that it propounds paradox at every turn. Strive for non-striving, let go of letting go, achieve non-achievement; Buddhism is chock full of such paradoxes. These are consciously enigmatic contradictions akin to the famous koans of Zen Buddhism’s Rinzai school, meant not to supply answers but to provoke enlightenment. Combine that with Buddhism’s own recent demonstration of good vs evil dualistic behavior, illustrated by the murderous agitation of rabidly anti-Muslim Buddhist monks like U Wirathu and Galagodaatte Gnanasara, and we’re back in the thick of this world’s shit.

WHAT’S LEFT?

Nobody bickers, nobody stalls or debates or splinters.

John Sayles, “At the Anarchists’ Convention”

In John Sayles’ piquant short story, “At the Anarchists’ Convention,” cantankerous personal squabbling and bitter political sectarianism among the scruffy convention participants are momentarily set aside when all in attendance unite against a hotel manager who tries to kick the Convention out of its rented room due to double booking. This whimsical tale ends when the convention of geriatric has-been red-flag wavers dedicated to lost causes erect a barricade, stand together, link arms, and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

The notion that The Movement is something we should rally around against a common enemy reeks of just such sentimentality and nostalgia. That this degenerate offspring of what was called The Left is all but worthless goes without saying.

So, call me a fascist or a racist, or label my thinking white supremacist or Eurocentric. I write my columns knowing full well that some people will dismiss what I say as defensive, abstract, condescending, or self-serving. For those of you who consider me an anachronistic, eccentric old school commie, here’s my upraised middle finger.

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